Report compiled by Tom Chalmers, Managing Director at IPR License
This month we’re focusing on the writing and publishing scene in East Africa with a specific focus on Kenya. This is a market which is historically dominated by the academic presses but, as we see from the reports below, there appears to be a shift in the literary scene with writers finding more and more ways to engage with greater numbers of readers, especially within the self-publishing arena.
So let’s take a more in-depth view of this ever evolving publishing scene.
Jay Vasudevan, Jacaranda Literary Agency
Jay Vasudevan, founder of the Jacaranda Literary Agency, looks at how the changing East African publishing industry is emerging from the shadows of domineering nations such as Nigeria and South Africa.
The publishing landscape seems to have changed so much in the short space I have lived in Kenya. There are some great new voices emerging from East Africa. Vibrant stories with some wonderful writing. It has been such a joy to be here and read the literature of East Africa as a local.
The big players are traditional publishers, often with a regional scope and links to publishing houses abroad. Their model tends to focus on the text book market for the school curriculum, as this is where the major financial returns come from.
Generally adult fiction will only sell a few thousand copies, so is nowhere near as lucrative as the hundreds of thousands of book sales from the school curriculum system. They also mostly own publishing rights to the older adult fiction/non-fiction which is used as supplementary reading.
These publishers include Oxford University Press, the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation and Longhorn Publishers amongst others. They tend to be more risk averse in what they publish, as they have found a formula that works for them, and have a wide distribution system established.
The newly important niche publishing scene in Kenya has become quite exciting. There are three of relevance. Kwani? which very much focuses on new voices and experimental writing. Founded by Binyawanga Wainaina and now run by Billy Kahora and Angela Wachuka, Kwani? is very involved with the finest Literary voices in the region. It works on several writing workshops. Kwani? has been the beginning of some glorious literary journeys. Yvonne Awour Odhiambo’s Dust is one of their most recent successes
(Angela Wachuka of Kwani? was interviewed previously by Publishing Perspectives)
Then of course, there is Storymoja – the premise of which was set up on writing great East African books to encourage reading for pleasure, away from the narrow remit of curriculum work. When it started it published novella-sized books in the hope that people who didn’t read regularly would be more likely to pick up this sort of book that feels slightly less intimidating for a starter reader than a full length novel. It also publishes more commercial/popular adult fiction and non-fiction and has, in the past, been very interested in exploring new genres.
It is actively involved in aggressively trying to grow the reading market, with the knowledge that this is the only way publishing houses will be able to survive. They have evolved to work with the school curriculum, publish more e-books and new genres. Simply put, I think Kwani? focuses on the writer, and Storymoja focuses on the reader – like two sides of the same coin.
I’d also like to include Footprints Press in this list. It publishes mostly non-fiction, higher priced books – they produce beautiful coffee table books featuring the stories of Kenyans (like Life Journeys). The company seems to have a slightly different strategy, and do a lot of bulk sales to corporates and organizations.
I do find that online spaces such as Jalada Africa or Brainstorm Kenya whose collections tend to be free, themed around specific issues, attract a more emerging voice and there are more and more of these emerging.
The literary scene has definitely changed in the last five years, particularly in the increasing ways in which Kenyan readers are engaging with books, particularly through events and there is great hope that this will continue.